In today’s decision in the case of Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. US Dept. of Health and Human Services, et al., the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) is unconstitutional in that it denies federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples. DOMA was hastily enacted in 1996 in response to Hawaii’s consideration of allowing same-sex marriage. DOMA does not prevent same sex marriage, but it prevents same-sex couples who were married in states permitting same-sex marriage from receiving benefits that heterosexual spouses receive, such as the financial benefits of filing joint tax returns or social security benefits for a surviving spouse.
Basically, the ruling holds that a court has to give a hard look to make sure there is more than just a plausible reason for imposing different treatment on a group. There must be some real justification given for the law, and there was none here. The First Circuit carefully reviewed Supreme Court precedent of equal protection cases and weighed them rather conservatively in its analysis. It was careful not to overreach. The court stated that under existing precedent, same-sex marriages do not require strict scrutiny (the standard used in race cases) or intermediate scrutiny (the standard used in gender cases), but held that something more is required than the basic rational basis standard used in commercial cases. The court noted that the Supreme Court has intensified scrutiny of purported justifications of statutes where minorities are subject to discrepant treatment and has limited the permissible justifications.